Kicking students out to get their work visas: Bad idea or worst idea?

The great thing about the end of the year, other than my birthday (better known as Christmas 2) is that governments try to release all their crazy policies while everyone is off enjoying the ‘festive season’ (better known as getting drunk). So I wasn’t that surprised when I read that the Home Office is developing a new strategy of forcing all non-EU foreign students to leave the country before applying for a work visa.

Let’s discuss why this is a terrible idea. A university helps the regional and national economy by bringing in promising pupils, educating them, helping them gain technical and social skills, and then unleashing them on the economy as workers and entrepreneurs.One of the biggest economic contributions universities make to their surrounding regions is to attract and train skilled workers. All the cool research and ‘academic spinoffs’ are just added gravy, the true benefit comes from developing wicked smart kids.  Immigration policy should do its best to create pathways for foreign students trained in domestic universities to stay in the country. Universities aren’t economic engines, their alumni are.

I also think that forcing a 4-month trip home would break the link between the student, the university, and the region. Let’s imagine the optimum situation here: a brilliant student graduates and leaves the country to apply for a work permit. She has to give up her flat, sell or store all her furniture, and then move back with the parents. She goes out and applies for jobs and because she is brilliant, gets many offers and gets a work permit after about 120 days. Right there the university’s home region has lost it’s best claim to the student: she already lives there. Sure lots of students move after finishing university, but many students (particularly post grads) also set down roots in a place that encourages them to look for local work. This is especially true for entrepreneurs or people who want to work at startups who depend on their place-based social networks to find opportunities and jobs. This policy change will break these networks and bonds for every single non-EU student.

Second, it’s pretty much admitting that the sole purpose of international students is to subsidize domestic students’ tuition. I’m an international student / worker twice over: I’m an American but I did my undergrad and PhD in Canada and now I’m a migrant worker in the UK. As a student I knew that I was paying more than my Canadian friends, but at least I knew that Canada had some interest in keeping me after my studies. Maybe not as an undergrad (for some reason economic geographers aren’t in demand in the Canadian labour market) but my PhD came with a permanent residency application stapled to it. I think changing the rules to basically say “thanks for the money, now why don’t you go home and cool your heels for a few months while we decide if you can come back.” would really change my view towards the university and the country.

Look, we all know that this change is being done for political reasons leading up to an election. Some idiots made an idiotic promise to minimize net immigration. But it’s also important that every single idiotic consequence of these idiotic plans are raised and that the backers of these plans are forced to explain their rationales to a sceptical public.

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